Last week, my daughter, Megan, received a great thrill. A close friend from Wake Forest, called her up and asked her to be his “plus one” at a memorial service for Maya Angelou. Most Americans know something of Maya Angelou, author of Why The Caged Bird Sings and writer & reader of an majestic poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration (“On the Pulse of the Morning”). But few seemed to know that she had been a full, active professor at Wake Forest University for 32 years and a visiting professor as far back as 1973, according to one source. Megan and, her friend, Joe, both graduated from Wake Forest in 2008. Joe had been one of Dr. Angelou’s favorite students and personally wrote his recommendation to medical school.
Joe lives in New York, Megan lives in D.C., and the memorial service was at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rehearsal was at 7:00 pm on Friday night, the service was at 10:00 am on Saturday morning. Joe met her in Washington, they drove down to Winston-Salem together on Friday. They were back in D.C. in time for dinner on Saturday night. It was a whirlwind trip, but the whirlwind of emotions were even more powerful – for her and for me.
The two-hour event was part-church-memorial-service, part-music-show, part-roast, part-literary-tribute. I watched the live broadcast on OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network. Numerous people spoke – relatives of Dr. Angelou, Andrew Young, Bill Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, beloved Wake Forest Provost Ed Wilson to name a few of the notables. Musically, numerous African-American gospel singers belted out old “Negro Spirituals.” The Winan brothers reigned supreme. Lee Ann Womack, the token Southern country singer, sang her hit, “I Hope You Dance.”
In my humble opinion, Dr. Serenus Churn, pastor of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, arguably the least credentialed person on the podium, stole the show. When his turn came near the end of the service, he nailed it! (#proudtobeapastor)
However, ALL speakers were articulate and poignant. I cried through most of it. Bill Clinton pointed out that Dr. Angelou was mute in her early years before God gave her a voice – “And what a voice it was!” He then said God called her home at this time because God wanted his voice back. Nice. Oprah wept. Michelle tried to speak “for everyone” but it was clear she spoke primarily to Angelou’s influence over strong black women.
Dr. Maya Angelou was a talented, spirited, gifted person who accomplished a ridiculous number of things in her lifetime. I cannot claim to be an authority of her written work, but I have read many of her published words. Her main message that comes through to me is the awesome power of humanity, endowed within us by a mysterious Creator. She speaks of the power of humanity to overcome, to rise, to triumph, to be victorious, to be the true self – your self – unashamed, unabashed and ferocious. It is a message of unrelenting, unrepentant, unyielding resilience – the same theme Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times, chose to speak about at Wake Forest commencement last month days after she was fired from her dream job.
Listen to Dr. Angelou read a great poem: Still I Rise.
When life knocks you down, do yourself a favor and pick up something written by the immortal Dr. Maya Angelou.